Will ride-pooling breathe life into the humble minivan?



Tom Phillips
04/16/2019

Are minivans the past or the future? The answer is they could be both.

A little over a decade ago, the minivan was experiencing a popularity high. According to analysis from LMC Automotive, in 2005 European minivan sales topped 2.4-million units, the segment accounted for 15 percent of the market, and the best-selling model, the Renault Scenic, sold over 300,000 units per year.

Fast-forward to today and the market has changed significantly. OEMs like Opel and Toyota; Kia and Ford are ditching minivans completely from their line-ups, and sales of minivans are unlikely to top a million this year. The SUV is now enjoying its moment in the sun, with even the stalwart Renault Scenic being obliged to wear 20-inch wheels and plastic cladding to create at least an illusion of on-trend go-anywhere ability.

But while the consumer craze for SUVs shows very little sign of abating right now, there might well be life in the minivan yet.

A new generation

At the time of writing, there were almost 4.9-million posts on Instagram tagged with the hashtag #vanlife. And while this isn’t exactly hard evidence, the images shared of people taking vans to some of the world’s most exotic locales are proof that vans can be considered cool, particularly by a younger demographic.

Less anecdotally, a 2018 Gallup poll discovered that “young adults are [the] most likely age group to use ride-sharing services. Forty-five percent of adults aged 18 to 29 say they use ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft, whereas this drops to 36% among those 30 to 49 years old, 23% of those aged 50 to 64 and 13% of those aged 65 or older.”

This willingness to share, particularly in urban areas where ride-sharing is most prevalent, is another reason why the van hasn’t quite had its day.

Ride-pooling proves vans are the ace of space

The minibus taxi is a staple of mobility around the world. From Latin America to Asia to most of Africa, the shared van, ploughing different dedicated routes at all times of day is a common sight. Often providing the cheapest method of mobility in many of the world’s developing economies, the minibus taxi is now being upgraded to become a fully functioning ride-pooling solution. For example, in South Africa, an app called AftaRobot brings an Uber-like experience to hailing the once-unpredictable minibus taxi, allowing users to take safer, more predictable journeys.

However, while Toyota has just launched a new, sixth generation of its dependable Hiace, which is often the go-to minibus taxi of choice, it’s the development of ride-pooling in developed economies that is likely to secure the future of the minivan as we know it – complete with connectivity features expected by a new generation of riders.

After a successful pilot project in Hannover, the VW Group’s MOIA ride-sharing system is now rolling out in Hamburg. The app-based system allows users to travel between two points in a custom-designed MOIA electric-powered van, sharing the ride – and cost – with people going in broadly similar directions.

The MOIA +6 is based on the Volkswagen e-Crafter, and can carry up to six passengers. It has a range of 300km and can recharge from 0-80% in 30 minutes at the firm’s dedicated hub. In order to keep riders happy, the vehicle includes individual lighting, USB charging ports and free wifi.

Daimler is also in on the ride-pooling act, with a partnership with US-based transportation platform Via. The joint venture, ViaVan, began in 2017, and sees Via provide its technology and Mercedes a fleets of vans in three European cities – Amsterdam, Berlin and London – with more to follow.

The vans provided are predominantly diesel-powered, but electric versions are being added to fleets. The vans lack the overt sophistication of VW’s rival, but the close relationship with Via, which offers its ride-pooling platform in the US, too, means that Mercedes is likely to benefit from valuable data in an area of the market that is price-sensitive, yet open to sharing in order to reduce the price.

On that score, mobility app CityMapper has also begun experimenting with van services in London. Using all of the data it has gathered from offering route planning services via its app, CityMapper has run its own bus service in the past, with two routes identified as missing from Transport for London’s network.

Its latest project is to use all the data gathered from the bus project to create what it calls ‘The Responsive Network.’ The system provides an adaptable, movable network of mobility solutions that responds to traffic and other demands to get people to their destinations quickly and cheaply. The best vehicle identified to provide such a service in one of the world’s busiest cities? The van.

However, it’s not all rosy when it comes to van-based services. Back in 2016, Ford spent $65 million on Chariot, a ride-pooling service based in San Francisco. Despite its best efforts, including expansion into new markets in the US, and the UK, the service couldn’t attract enough riders to take on of the 15 seats on its vividly branded Ford Transits. Chariot was wound up on February 1, 2019.

It’s interesting to note that the predominantly US-based service was effectively shuttered as one report put it ‘because people didn’t want a better bus.’ The relative lack of bus services in the US, when compared with Europe, seems to have been a factor, with people preferring to spend more on an Uber, rather than opting for the halfway-house solution that Chariot provided.

Preparing for the autonomous future

The fact that the younger demographic is more willing to adopt ride-sharing vehicles as their key method of mobility makes the investments that OEMs are making in ride-pooling worth a watch. It’s particularly interesting to keep an eye on MOIA, as that service genuinely offers a connected, shared and electric experience.

Speaking at Automotive IQ’s recent eMobility Charging Infrastructure conference, Torben Menke, the chief financial officer of MOIA, mentioned that although an autonomous version of the MOIA vehicle might be logical, it’s not in the plan yet. However, he did detail just how much thought had to go into planning charging and sufficient range around the human driver’s needs.

The vehicle itself also offers some of the features that riders will come to expect from autonomous vehicles – larger, more comfortable seats hint at the new approach to automotive seating encouraged by the fact that a driver no longer needs to drive; wifi access points to ever-improved connectivity, while tailored lighting is a nod to increased personalization afforded by more sophisticated in-car electronics.

So is the future van-shaped?

In China, where travelling together as an extended family is becoming increasingly common, the country’s best-selling car is the Wuling Hong Guang, a seven-seat minivan that sells for around $9,000. In 2018, 545,928 examples were sold, making it the 17th best-selling car in the world.

US sales of the Dodge Grand Caravan, a car that first went on sale back in 2007, were 151,927 in 2018 – up 21% over the previous year (not to mention the fact that its FCA sibling, the Chrysler Pacifica is selling well and the development car of choice for Waymo, as it refines its highly automated drive solutions). Dacia Dokker sales are up 7.5% in Europe, to 39,921 units, making it the third best selling van in the region.

It’s clear that right now, although SUVs are the current in thing, that the minivan is far from a spent force, particularly at the value end of the scale, be it as a packed minibus taxi taking people to work in Johannesburg or as dependable if unexciting family transport. We’re keen to see how adding technology and sophistication – and a revolving door of paying ride-pool passengers – plays out at the upper end of the market, too. Do a new generation of passengers really benefit from the extra space, connectivity and value a ride-pool could offer? And will they be prepared to share that experience with a van-full of strangers? If it's successful, it'll be proof that there's plenty of #vanlife in the minivan yet.

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